CryptoZoo > Sightings!

Interview with Loren Coleman


There’s a man walking down Congress Street with a plastic gorilla bust under his arm. If you ask him, he will tell you that he bought it on eBay from an over-endowed museum curator, and that, in fact, it is not a gorilla, but a likeness of Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and believed to be one of humankind’s earliest ancestors.

Loren Coleman doesn’t get much respect in Portland. Utter his name in the pubs of Inverness, Scotland, though, or in the grocery lines of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and you’re likely to elicit at least a spark of recognition. Because in the lands of, respectively, the Loch Ness Monster and the terrifying Mothman, one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists gets a little credit where credit is due.

" Crypto-what? " you ask. But then your nimble brain, despite having opted for French rather than Latin in high school, begins to parse: crypto, puzzle — mystery; zoology, the study of animals. Cryptozoology, the study of mystery animals.

" Cryptozoology is the study of unknown animals, as yet undiscovered animals, " Coleman says. " So it’s not what a lot of people think — the mythical animals, the legends. Some people call them legendary, but it’s animals that local people, native people, residents, first-nations people, experience — so it has to be an animal that’s large enough. We’re not interested in insects; we’re not interested in minnows and little fish. We’re interested in animals that have an impact on humans, and can be seen. "

You know, like Bigfoot. This sleepy city has a Bigfoot expert in our midst; a man who was Hollywood’s go-to guy on the Mothman Prophecies’s " based on a true story " angle — and most of us don’t even know it.

The Phoenix was lucky enough to be tipped off to the bearded investigator’s existence, however, and, on the occasion of his newly published book, Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America (he’s the author of a dozen tomes, many of them cryptozoology related), we picked Coleman’s brain about his career, local cryptozoology lore, spotting fake Bigfoot evidence, and other fascinating things we never knew we’d find so interesting. Here’s a glimpse.


Let’s get this one out of the way first because we know at least two-thirds of you are snickering into your shirt sleeves right now. Yes, Loren Coleman has a sense of humor about his eccentric profession. And yes, he takes his work very seriously.

Coleman: I’m extremely passionate about [cryptozoology], but not evangelical. And I think that’s the difference that people sometimes don’t get. One of the first questions I’m asked is, " Do you believe in Bigfoot? " And my response is, " No, I do not believe in Bigfoot. Belief is the providence of religion. I accept the reality of the evidence. " So it’s more a scientific view of it. Yet a passionate view. Just because you put it in your head as belief doesn’t mean that I have to be there with you.

Phoenix: Do you ever encounter people who are just angry at you because of the work you do?

A: I think the ridicule curtain is much more prevalent. Let me get back to the anger, but the ridicule is the thing I get the most, in that people try to make fun of me. I worked at the Muskie School for 13 years and I’ve adjunct-taught all around New England and at USM, and the thing that other professors would say is, " Oh, there’s Loren — he believes in aliens. " Even though UFOs are not at all my interest area. But it was more of a " If he believes in Bigfoot, he believes in UFOs " kind of thing. So it was kind of a put-down. And that’s the sort of intellectual thing that happens a lot.

The other [situation] is, I’ve been on " Coast to Coast " with George Noory, and he had skeptics calling in and saying " There’s no bones, what’s going on? " and " You’re crazy. " And so there is that level of skepticism that gets almost into blindness, and not open-mindedness. So I guess if there’s any anger, it’s from those people, the skeptics who have already made up their minds.

On the differences between Bigfoot, Yeti, and Abominable Snowmen

Should you encounter a preternaturally large, disconcertingly hirsute humanoid while wandering in the woods one day, would you know by name what manner of cryptid you were facing? Sure, your geography might give you a clue — you don’t often hear of Yeti sightings in Oregon, and you don’t hear much at all about the Abominable Snowman these days. But before you scream like a little boy and turn tail, note the following:

Coleman: In the 1950s and before, everything that was seen in the world was called an Abominable Snowman, if it was hairy and gigantic. After the 1950s, everything that was seen around the world that was giant and hairy gets lumped in this generic Bigfoot. But there are very different characteristics.

For instance, the Yeti has a footprint that is much more like a great ape. The toe goes off to the side, the toes are sort of curled in a different way, and so a lot of people think about the Yeti as a rock ape.

But Bigfoot is generally seen as upright. It has a foot where all the toes are straightforward, like a human being. So it’s like a gigantic human being with a giant foot — just like " bigfoot " says.

The Yeti are really much more ape-like. They’re kind of like gorillas, except they’re in the Himalayas. And they’re not all white — that’s another myth . . . There’s a breeding population of these different animals around the world.


Maine has a smattering of lake-monster and Bigfoot stories, plus some big cats. Overall, the Northeast is not, shall we say, a target-rich environment, but we’ll get to that later. Coleman fills us in on what little details do exist.

Coleman: In the whole Midcoast area there are black panther reports. Black panthers do not exist in geological terms. Most people think the black panthers are just merely melanistically the black face of mountain lions. But there are no verified, classified phases of black mountain lions, they’re all kind of light gray to deer-color . . . But there’s the reports all across the United States of black panthers that are never caught. They’re also seen in conjunction with things that look like African lions, with the mane and stuff.

So it seems like there’s either populations of escaped animals that are breeding, with people that buy pets, but people don’t have that many exotic black panthers that they let loose in Maine, or in Michigan, or Kentucky. Or there’s a possible other hidden population of mystery cats that we haven’t quite caught up with.

So that’s one thing. There are very few and far between reports of Bigfoot-type creatures in Maine. At the turn of the century, between the 1800s and 1900s, in the Rangeley area, [there was] basically some kind of large hairy creature with red glowing eyes, and it would meet people and scare them if they were berry picking. And it was upright, so it wasn’t a bear — because it would walk or run for a little while.

There’s also a guy in Sidney, Maine — his name is Richard Brown — and he’s reported to me quite a few reports of what he thinks are migrating Bigfoot in the Sydney area to the coastal area. And he thinks they migrate at certain times of the year. He showed me enormous footprint casts of them. And he did so many casts of them that he uses them for skeet.

If anything, if he was trying to sell them on eBay, or if he was trying to show them at all of the conferences, and — back to the evangelical — if he was so convinced that this was real, I would almost be more skeptical. But because he just takes it so casually, and he doesn’t care about them . . . there’s something almost rustic about him and his reports that make me think there might be something there . . . One of the good things about living in Portland is, I actually named Cassie, the Casco Bay sea serpent. Now it’s in all the encyclopedias about cryptozoology. But the Casco Bay sea serpent has been here since the 1700s . . . You know Preble Street? Well, Preble was named after a Revolutionary War colonel, and Preble’s sighting of the sea serpent in the 1700s — he actually saw the serpent and fired a round of cannon fire over it, and it scurried away. And since that time there’s been these sightings of kind of long creatures, serpentine, but almost more bulky, with a little head up.

In 1958 there was a sighting off of Cape Elizabeth, by two Mainers who were from Norway. They were out fishing and they saw this creature. What was really interesting about that sighting to me was that, at the time they had one of those things in the water that emitted both light and sound, lightships, and it would make this noise routinely. And every time this booming sound would come from the lightship — and it did it all the time, not just in fog — every time it made a noise the sea serpent would turn its head. So it’s one of the best sightings that verifies these sea serpents can hear.

Of course, sea serpent is a really bad name. Because they’re not reptiles.

Phoenix: Are they mammals?

A: I think they’re probably mammals — probably a form of giant, long-necked seal. That’s my personal theory.

Q: Do you suspect there’s just one of them in local waters?

A: No, it would be a population. If anything, the sea really supports a lot of these animals.

On the big picture

Whether or not you " believe " in the existence of cryptids, the patterns observed by those who have spent serious time in the field lead to a conclusion that is hardly arguable: Humans are filthy animals.

Coleman: Few people understand that 95 percent of the land surface of Maine is covered with trees. So we actually have more habitat here than they do in Northern California, where only 85 percent is tree-covered and wilderness. So we’re in a very good state. It’s just that, it seems to be an east-to-west thing, in which we’ve really wiped out what were here during the native North American times. Any pockets of Bigfoot out here would really be unusual.

Phoenix: Are there any estimates of the size of the Bigfoot population?

A: The old estimate, Dr. Grover Krantz felt that there was between 2000 and 4000. In my new book, I really am much more conservative and estimate that there’s probably about 1500 [in the Pacific Northwest]. I think it’s a pop that’s dying out.

I mean, maybe in the whole US with these various populations there could be 4000, but there’s probably very few Yeti, probably in the hundreds . . . We know, right now for instance, there’s only about 350 mountain gorilla. So that’s getting pretty close to the low end of breeding viability. I’m actually afraid that by the time we discover [Bigfoot and other cryptids] they’ll actually be extinct.

Q: Why do you think this is happening?

A: Because humans are dirty [laughs]. No — I think pollution, habitat destruction — in many ways I think Bigfoot is the canary, and we should watch that.

On the origin of the species

Coleman: One-hundred years ago everybody thought that there was only one species of human, that it went from caveman to Neanderthal to human. And they all thought there was just one of us on Earth at a time. And we now know that a million years ago, there were six different species of humanoids in Africa. And so why are we so egotistical to think that it’s just us, and there’s not something like Bigfoot around?


We like interviewees who bring props. Coleman brought a trio of plaster Bigfootprint casts, among other things (Lucy’s head), which came in handy when illustrating how cryptozoologists separate the fakers from the bona fide.

Coleman: You can look at old casts from the ’60s and ’50s and find these dermal ridges — which is like our finger print, and you have them on your feet, but people call them fingerprints for some reason. But we use the term dermal ridges, which is a much more forensic, technical term.

You look for impression cracks around the footprint. In other words, when you take a piece of flat wood and go into the earth, it has these ridges that are very similar and diagnostic. Whereas when you have a real foot going into the earth, the impact ridges are much different and really, diagnostically, you can say this is a real print, this is a fake one.

The other, of course, which is obvious, but a lot of people missed it in the ’50s, is that if you have two wooden feet — and there was [in one instance] a series of 1000 footprints — you can look at them, and any kind of animal foot is animated, so all of the prints are different. And it’s not different because these things slid, or there’s a bump there, but it’s different because the foot really is different every time it comes down. But if you have a piece of wood, all of them look alike.

Phoenix: How have cryptozoologists attempted to verify that the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film [of a moving Bigfoot] is not a hoax?

A: Well, they went back and they looked at the site, they talked to witnesses. The Russians, Canadians, and Americans who have analyzed it have spent really more money than they’ve ever spent on anything else on Bigfoot, and one thing is that you can actually see movement of the muscle under the hair . . . I mean, there’s always the possibility that it was a great suit, but.

And one of the things I talk about in [my book] is the Chambers affair, where a guy who won an Academy Award for the first Planet of the Apes, there was a claim that he made the suit. But some associates of mine interviewed him in a nursing home, and he said " I just let that myth go because it helped my reputation. " And if you look at the original Planet of the Apes, the Academy Award that he won is for a body suit that ends [at chest level] because they wear those soldier outfits. There was no technology in 1967 to make these kinds of suits.

... There’s a very specific way that these things walk, in that they don’t bend their knees, and that shows up in the film. Maybe there was somebody with a broken hip who was in the suit, but that would be a stretch.


Here’s a primer on the story, from the back cover of Coleman’s book Mothman and Other Curious Encounters: " On November 15, 1966, this huge, red-eyed creature with wings appeared over Point Pleasant, West Virginia. This began 13 months of otherworldly mystery, madness, and mayhem for the people of Point Pleasant, culminating in the collapse of the Silver Bridge, which left 46 dead. " When the Richard Gere flick Mothman Prophecies came out in 2002 (based on the book by John Keel), Coleman was the studio’s consultant on " the reality of Mothman, " conducting between 200 and 300 interviews with the media during a two-month span.

Phoenix: Did you think the studio did an accurate job of dealing with the scientific aspect of the story, or was it more Hollywoodish?

Coleman: It’s a good psychological thriller with elements of Mothman in it. But I knew that going in, that they weren’t really trying to do that. They had made a conscious decision to get rid of a lot of the other weird elements and concentrate on Mothman.

And also, they fictionalized it so much — they brought it up to the contemporary time. Richard Gere and Laura Linney, their characters were really two parts of the investigator.

Q: Did your book come out before or after the movie?

A: Before and after. It came out in December, the movie came out in January, and then I released another edition in February.

Q: Why a new edition?

A: Because I’ve gone back to Point Pleasant and talked to witnesses, and people have died — there was a major amount of accidents in Mason County, where this happened, as the movie was opening. Two brothers of witnesses died. So there were a lot of bizarre coincidences and tragedies that I captured in the book.

On covert action in the field

Coleman: Yeah, I think cryptozoology is used as a front by the CIA. And it would be intelligent to use it, because there’s people going to Mongolia, and there’s people going to the Congo, and there’s people going around the world on these expeditions. We very definitely know that in 1960 when Sir Edmund Hillary went looking for the Yeti, for Worldbook, part of what they were doing was spying on the Chinese to see if they had rocket technology . . . It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just trying to figure out how many other expeditions have been used.

If all this has piqued your interest, mark your calendar for Columbus Day Weekend (October 10 through 12), when Coleman and others will hold a Cryptozoology and Art symposium in Portland, at MECA’s Institute of Contemporary Art. An accompanying exhibit will — hopefully — tour the country, then come back to Maine to be displayed permanently. The symposium is also a release party for Coleman’s newest book, Lake Monsters, Sea Serpents, and Other Mystery Denizens of the Deep. Keep an eye on our listings this fall for symposium details, one of which we can tell you know: The weekend culminates with a Duck Tour expedition in search of Cassie.


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